Driverless cars intriguing factor in debate on public transport

By David Thomson on Sat, 1 Jul 2017

Could a looming era of self-driving, electric cars mean the end of public transport as we know it? That was one of several possible scenarios canvassed in Dunedin late last week, as part of the annual Institute of Public Works Engineers (IPEWA) New Zealand conference.

It arose during a panel discussion titled ‘‘The road to a driverless future'' and was proposed by Ministry of Transport deputy chief executive Andrew Jackson. Based on the modelling work carried out on the Wellington public transport network, the basic line of argument goes something like this: when taxi-type cars become autonomous (i.e. no longer require a driver) they will actually become cheaper to use than established forms of mass public transport.

Once that occurs, why would anyone take public transport when the alternative is cheaper as well as more convenient?

The extent to which this should give pause for thought at a time when Dunedin is looking at major changes to its public transport network depends a little on ideology and a little on how far in the future the widespread deployment of self-driving cars is.

As the first of four panel members to make a presentation at the discussion, I suggested 2035 as a point in time when such vehicles, which will largely be electric-powered, would have a significant presence on New Zealand roads.

My suggestion was based mainly on a (somewhat) informed assessment of the likely period for the main technical barriers to such a roll-out being overcome. Interestingly, I seemed to find myself in accord with my fellow panel members, some of whom looked at the issues from quite a different perspective.

University of Otago philosopher James Maclaurin explored social and legal barriers to rapid autonomous vehicle adoption, while Danish futurist Liselotte Lyngso questioned the extent to which autonomous cars would be charisma- free communally accessed utilitarian ‘‘boxes'' rather than individually-owned items with a high degree of design appeal.

After 20 minutes during which we each presented our case, panel facilitator Ian Telfer, from Radio New Zealand, asked us several questions, before handing over to an audience that would, I think, have happily interrogated us well beyond the hour allowed for the session.

If you find any of this pondering about the future remotely interesting, the good news is that the whole shebang was recorded by RNZ for broadcast later this month.

One thing I can guarantee right now is that our panel discussion was a lot more civilised than any chat involving Formula One rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and their team-mates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen.

Hamilton was angry after Vettel hit the rear of his car and then banged wheels in a ill-judged moment at last weekend's Azerbaijan Grand Prix, while Raikkonen was none too pleased after a wheel-banging incident with Bottas.

I say harden up lads, it's motor racing for which you are paid handsomely, not tiddlywinks.

Daniel Ricciardo's fine drive to victory was the high point at Baku, not a whole host of complaining. Great news also that Scott Dixon has finally found winning form in this year's Indycar series, and with it has extended his championship lead. Fingers crossed, again, for Hayden Paddon, who is tackling the Polish round of the World Rally Championship this weekend.

David Thomson